Site proposed for new, permanent shelter in Yellowknife

The territorial government is moving ahead with plans to build a new and much larger day shelter and sobering centre in downtown Yellowknife. The government wants to build the new center on a lot near the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre on 51st Street.

New shelter will be more than twice the size of existing combined day centre and sobering centre

The territorial government wants to build a new combined day centre and sobering centre for for people experiencing homelessness. It is hoping to begin construction next year. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

The territorial government is moving ahead with plans to build a new and much larger day shelter and sobering centre in downtown Yellowknife.

The government wants to build the new center on a lot near the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre on 51st Street.

"Ideally, that's where we would like to have it," said Perry Heath, director of infrastructure planning for the department of health and social services.

"We think it's a reasonable location … the users have reiterated over and over again that it has to be downtown."

The day centre provides a warm space and free meals and refreshments for people experiencing homelessness, as well as access to washrooms, showers and laundry facilities. The sobering centre provides a safe place for people who are intoxicated.

Heath said that, with a planned 1,200 square metres of floor space (13,000 square feet), the new centre will be more than twice the size of the combined day centre and sobering centre being operated out of leased space on 50th Street.

"We're including an increased component called the community hall, where you can do more cultural activities. You'll be able to do smudging, but you'll also be able to do crafts," Heath said.

"It will act as an extension to the day shelter space."

Heath said the government is also considering making dedicated space in the new centre for doctors and counsellors to examine and treat users of the shelter.

He could not say how much the operating budget will be for the new centre. Because it will be issuing a request for proposals to design and build the facility in the fall, he said he would not reveal what the construction budget is.

The plan is to begin construction next year and open the new facility in 2023.

The territorial government has no current plans to close the second Yellowknife day centre for people experiencing homelessness that it established by declaring a State of Emergency last November. The government pays just over $4 million annually to operate two centres in Yellowknife. (Richard Gleeson CBC)

The existing day centre and sobering centre is operated under contract with the NWT Disabilities Council. It is one of two facilities where people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife can stay during the daytime. After Covid-19 health orders reduced the number of people who could be served there, the territorial government established the second day centre in the building that once housed the Side Door Youth Centre.

According to the health department, it costs $2.24 million annually to operate the combined day centre and sobering centre and about $1.8 million to operate the day centre. Heath said the department does not yet know whether those centres will continue operating after the new centre opens.

Heath said public consultation on the location of the new centre will be handled by the city in the context of a review of a development permit required for the project.

Violence 'quite common'

One of the issues any facility catering to people experiencing homelessness has to contend with is the intoxication and violence that sometimes accompanies it. Many people who are experiencing homelessness are struggling with addictions.

"Violent incidents within the shelters are quite common, it's very difficult to avoid them," said Jenna Scarfe, director of community health and wellness for the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.

"I would say that staff training is key to ensuring that staff are aware and prepared to deal with situations that come up, to be solution oriented."

The government has hired a lawyer to investigate allegations made in a news story Cabin Radio published in March. In the story shelter staff, speaking anonymously, said there was a lack of training on how to handle situations involving violence and aggression. Some said violence is a big safety issue for both staff and clients.

"We are taking the concerns staff raised very seriously and we're trying to have this done as soon as we can," said Scarfe.

The intoxication and violence associated with shelters are partly why the Northwest Territories government had to invoke a state of emergency to establish the second shelter in Yellowknife. Declaring it allowed the government to overrule the City of Yellowknife's refusal to authorize using the Side Door building as a temporary shelter. The city had rejected the idea after getting feedback from neighbouring businesses.

The government took the unusual step of invoking a state of emergency after looking at 26 other properties in the city that turned out to be unsuitable, or were owned by people who were unwilling to house a day shelter on their property.

Scarfe said no date has been set to close the second shelter, which was described as a temporary emergency measure when it was announced.

"People still require shelter, they need food, they need access to washrooms, storage for their belongings, certain services that are being provided at the shelter," said Scarfe.

In an effort to minimize the violence, Scarfe says additional lighting was added to the combined day centre and sobering centre. Staff also regularly patrol the block around both shelters in an effort to minimize the impact users are having on local businesses.

"Any issues that we have had, we have quickly tried to respond to, and Overlander (Sports, a business adjacent to the Side Door shelter) and the other businesses have been open to discussion and working through some of these difficult situations with us," said Scarfe.

There are no dedicated security staff working at either shelter, said Scarfe, though staff do have training on how to de-escalate conflicts between users or between users and staff. Though there are surveillance cameras inside and outside the combined day centre and sobering centre, there are none at the newer shelter.

In a follow-up story tomorrow, we will offer a look at ways that shelters that have been operating for many years in Thunder Bay and Calgary to address the risks to staff and neighbours of their shelters.